There’s certain people with whom I feel a certain kinship, a certain affinity, folks who jar me out of the limitations of my own vision. Always, absolutely always, they are not your “usual” kind of person, someone who “fits in” with whatever is around him. I have written about some of these folk in various blog postings here, like Han shan, the wild Chinese hermit monk, Ryokan in Japan, some of the Desert Fathers, Edward Abbey, and many others. Now I would like to discuss another such figure, Diogenes and his fellow Cynics.
Diogenes & the Cynics:
If you could go back to ancient Athens, you would find it a most remarkable place. The birthplace of western civilization, it was filled with poets, artists, philosophers, statesmen. It also was the bearer of many contradictions: an economy increasingly dependent on slavery (not racially oriented but still slavery); a series of wars; the political murder of Socrates, one of its greatest figures, etc. Within its cultural context was a “school” of philosophy called Cynicism–do not confuse this term with the modern notion of “cynicism.” The ancient Greek term that comes out as “cynicism” is closely related to the ancient Greek word for “dog.” Thus the Cynic philosophers were “dog-like” in a sense, and this will be clear shortly.
According to Wikipedia, the tenets of this school could be summarized as such:
“Cynicism (Greek: κυνισμός) is a school of thought of ancient Greek philosophy as practiced by the Cynics (Greek: Κυνικοί, Latin Cynici). For the Cynics, the purpose of life is to live in virtue, in agreement with nature. As reasoning creatures, people can gain happiness by rigorous training and by living in a way which is natural for themselves, rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, sex, and fame. Instead, they were to lead a simple life free from all possessions.”
“Cynicism is one of the most striking of all the Hellenistic philosophies. It offered people the possibility of happiness and freedom from suffering in an age of uncertainty. Although there was never an official Cynic doctrine, the fundamental principles of Cynicism can be summarized as follows:
- The goal of life is eudaimonia and mental clarity or lucidity (ἁτυφια) – literally “freedom from smoke (τύφος)” which signified ignorance, mindlessness, folly, and conceit.
- Eudaimonia is achieved by living in accord with Nature as understood by human reason.
- Arrogance (τύφος) is caused by false judgments of value, which cause negative emotions, unnatural desires, and a vicious character.
- Eudaimonia, or human flourishing, depends on self-sufficiency (αὐτάρκεια), equanimity, arete, love of humanity, parrhesia and indifference to the vicissitudes of life (ἁδιαφορία).
- One progresses towards flourishing and clarity through ascetic practices (ἄσκησις) which help one become free from influences – such as wealth, fame, and power – that have no value in Nature. Examples include Diogenes’ practice of living in a tub and walking barefoot in winter.
- A Cynic practices shamelessness or impudence (Αναιδεια) and defaces the nomos of society; the laws, customs, and social conventions which people take for granted.
Thus a Cynic has no property and rejects all conventional values of money, fame, power and reputation. A life lived according to nature requires only the bare necessities required for existence, and one can become free by unshackling oneself from any needs which are the result of convention.”
Now none of this is all that unusual or surprising…unless you consider its context. This was centuries before the rise of Christianity and Christian monasticism. Over a thousand years before the likes of St. Francis of Assisi, Crates gave away a huge fortune and lived as an impoverished street person. Modern counterparts are many and varied: folks like Thoreau, various “flavors” of the hippie movement, some of the “no money” guys hanging out on the fringes of society, the short-lived Occupy Movement, even Gandhi, and so many others. The thing to remember is that the Cynics did not just articulate an abstract philosophy, but they espoused a very concrete way of life; and what is most noteworthy is their posture of a very acerbic and aggressive critique of their own society and social conventions as a whole. They railed against all the masks provided by social life that kept people in a kind of fundamental falseness, the superficial social values and institutions of a corrupt and confused society. And remember this is over two thousand years ago.
Probably the most iconic Cynic of all was Diogenes, who spent a good part of his life in illustrious Athens during the time of Plato. He lived in the streets, begged for a living, walked around barefoot, slept in a tub, ate openly in the marketplace (which was a real no-no for Athenian sensibility) and ate raw meat when he could get his hands on it. He would urinate and defecate openly in the street causing much consternation. But there was a wisdom about him that kept him from being locked up or expelled from the city. He openly declared that he was “cosmopolitan,” which meant that he “belonged” to the world as a whole rather than to this tribe or city or nationality. If he were living today, I don’t think he would be saying “America First” but rather “Earth First.”
There was about him a dynamism and a sense of humor unrivalled in the history of philosophy (as one author put it). There’s a story about Diogenes walking through the marketplace with a lit lantern in broad daylight, and when asked what he was doing he replied that he was searching for one honest man. This image was ripped off by Nietzsche two thousand years later in his work The Gay Science. Here he has a madman going through the marketplace with a lamp in broad daylight saying that he is looking for God. Later he declares that “God is dead” and that “We, all of us, have killed God.” Amazing, this philosophical dialogue between Diogenes and Nietzsche spanning two thousand years!
Now these friends of mine are not flawless people; nor are they anyone to imitate or even be inspired by. I am not presenting a new hagiography, like they loved in the recent past. Religious figures especially were presented in a kind of frame of impeccable perfection. People loved to put “saints” and holy men and women on these proverbial pedestals and relate unreal stories about them and in general present them as a form of spiritual “superheroes.” Then you could “pray” to them to “intercede” for you as if “speaking to God” was a bit much. It’s as if you needed a lawyer in the Divine Realm. But the times have changed. Recently I read somewhere that folks now want spiritual models that they can relate to, someone like them, not the superheroes of yesteryear. Ok, I get that; but that’s not what I am looking for. My friends, like Diogenes, are not folks that I can or need to “relate to,” and needless to say I am not like them and most importantly they might be quite seriously flawed. No matter. And why would I want someone “like me”!?
What I am looking for are folks who are not sleepwalking through life, who do not succumb to what might be called “the permanent lie” in our social and In our personal life. Recently Chris Hedges wrote another marvelous piece with this title, “The Permanent Lie.” Here is the link:
Mostly he deals with the social consequences with only a hint or an indirect reference to the deeper problem, the deep down spiritual problem. This condition of the “permanent lie” refers to our inability not just to admit the truth in our lives, social and personal, but more our inability even to perceive that truth. The consequences are very significant, politically, economically, socially, and they are very well documented by Hedges–one could add that there are also some very serious religious consequences. And so the kind of folks I am most attracted to are the ones who serve as “alarm clocks” to my own sleepwalking within the “permanent lie” of our society, who challenge in one way or another, in a large way or a small way, this aspect of our life which is “the permanent lie.” I really don’t care whether they are seen as “religious” or not, whether they can even be deemed as “holy” or not. In the far past in my life these categories were much more important for me. Not anymore. Religion, any religion, like sex, can be a most intoxicating purveyor, enabler, and mask of the “permanent lie.”